Brian Azzarello speaks on the decline of corporate comics at Florida Supercon 2022
Brian Azzarello never writes a character he likes (except once)
One thing you could never accuse comic writer Brian Azzarello of is inauthenticity. Even in front of an intimate handful of convention goers, this Vertigo veteran is always ready to bare the beautiful ugliness of the somtimes-heartbreaking comic book industry. On the first day of Florida Supercon, a spotlight on the history of this creator of 100 Bullets and Faithless, and pioneer of Black Label takes us back to the comics that lured him into the paneled life, the unexpected tribulations and windfalls of work in a constantly changing industry, and where the comic book world has to go from here.
How Brian Azzarello became a comics fan
Azzarello took the stage for the first time in six weeks, after his last show at Orlando's MegaCon. After the audience took their seats, we settled in for a conversation taking us back through Azzarello’s career. Azzarello shared that his first comic obsessions were DC’s war titles ("G.I. Combat, Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace… those stories were so operatic"), and Marvel’s monster titles (loved Tomb of the Dracula, not so much Werewolf by Night. “How good could it be when the main character was named Jack Russell?”)
“Wasn’t into superheroes,” he laughs. “Still not into superheroes.”
War comics, though, as much as Azzarello loved them, still had a problem: the covers were always better than the story inside. “Joe Kubert could tell a better story in one image than the entire interior,” Azzarello claims. He wasn’t wrong.
How Brian Azzarello broke into comics
Azzarello made the transition from comic fan to comic writer through Comico Comics, which at the time was owned by eccentric industry personality Andrew Rev.
“It was insane. I think he resurfaced recently, Andrew Rev. I got that job because a friend of mine, this was in Chicago, he’d go down to the Art Institute where there were job boards, and there was a listing for comic books. He gave me the ad, like, ‘You read comics.’”
Azzarello went in to work over the weekends at the Rev-owned Comico as production coordinator, and was soon offered a full-time editor position.
“And that’s the worst thing you can do, is tell me ‘Don’t do something.’ Because then I’ll do it."
“Everyone who worked for him told me, ‘You don’t want to work here. Don’t take the job,’” Azzarello recalls “And that’s the worst thing you can do, is tell me ‘Don’t do something.’ Because then I’ll do it.”
“His head was full of bees,” Azzarello says describing his time with Rev. “That’s the way his attention span [was]. He had bought [Comico] out of bankruptcy. He bought it specifically for Batman/Grendel (an intercompany crossover which had already been finished, but unpublished, when Comico went bankrupt). But then, he had the company at the heyday of the original foil covers.
“Which by the way I can’t stand,” he says, shifting gears. “With the CGC grading. You’re supposed to read that stuff. It’s a book. Everybody wants to slab the first issue of Batman: Damned,” he said – Azzarello’s now valuable first issue of the Black Label series which includes a shadowed panel of Batman’s penis, and was quickly removed from shelves. “But wait a minute, isn’t the whole point to see what the big ado is in there? ‘No, take my word for it, it’s in there.’”
Back on the subject of Rev: “Coming up with all those cockamamie ideas, all the foil stuff, and the orders were like 160,000. And he screwed THAT up. And that was when I was like, ‘I gotta get out of here.’ I left a resignation letter on his desk and never came back.”
But having gained the association with Rev’s Comico, Azzarello found he was persona non grata in the comic business. “Knowing who I was working for, people would take a look at me and say, ‘Get out of here, you asshole.’”
One contemporary publisher to Comico that Azzarello had nothing but kind words for: First Comics. “That was more my speed. Lone Wolf and Cub, American Flagg. I don’t think there would be a Watchmen or a Dark Knight Returns without American Flagg… Howard Chaykin did so many great things. His Shadow, there was so much love you could see he had for the character and that stuff.”
Brian Azzarello's desire to hate his characters
And as for Brian’s work? Has he cultivated the same love for the characters he’s worked on? Don’t count on it.
"I’m better when I hate this character."
“I’ve only been a fan of one character I’ve ever worked on, and I’m never going to do it again.” (Azzarello refused to reveal which character that was.) “I like working on characters I have no connection to, so I can write it my own way without feeling beholden to the past. I’m better when I hate this character.”
After passing an 'audition' with his four-issue Johnny Double series for DC's Vertigo imprint, Azzarello’s breakthrough was the crime epic 100 Bullets with artist Eduardo Risso, launching his star through the halls of DC Comics.
“The original idea came when I was cut off in traffic,” Azzarello said. “And I say, I’ll kill that… expletive here. And the person I was driving with said ‘Well if you really could kill that guy, would you do it?’ So I owe my whole career to that guy who cut me off in traffic.
“It began with Agent Graves giving you the opportunity to kill the guy who cut you off in traffic. It was the ‘Revenge of the Month,’ very episodic like TV. I was talking to Axel Alonso, editor of Vertigo at the time, that we need something to pull it all together. Then I came up with the Minutemen, and it fell all into place. And then it was 100 issues, because it was 100 Bullets. Worst idea I ever had. I’ll never do that again.”
"It began with Agent Graves giving you the opportunity to kill the guy who cut you off in traffic. It was the ‘Revenge of the Month,’ very episodic like TV."
The impact of 100 Bullets changed the entire culture and direction of Vertigo, of which Azzerllo is well aware. “At the time, Vertigo was fairies and elves and shit. So Axel had the foresight to say, 'Do you mind if I show this to Jenette [Kahn], who was publisher of DC at the time?' So we sent it to her. And she said, ‘When are we publishing this.’ The first contract was, ‘Say this doesn’t sell well, would you be able to wrap it up in 18 issues?’ And I lied. I said 'Yes.' But it worked out.”
How Brian Azzarello became the first non-Brit to write Hellblazer
Azzarello’s success with 100 Bullets brought him over to Vertigo’s greatest rite of passage at the time, the Hellblazer series – the first American to gain the opportunity. How did he land it? Simple. “I got Hellblazer because Warren Ellis quit,” he explains. The rule before that was Hellblazer had to be written by a Brit. But he quit because they wouldn’t publish this issue he wrote that was called ‘Shoot,’ which was right around the time of the Columbine shootings. And that was good for me.”
Can he understand why Warren quit? Maybe. But he can also understand why DC wouldn’t run it. “I can see DC’s point. I wouldn’t have quit over that. It’s not [my character]. I think he was done with it,” with it, he offers, affording Ellis some leeway.
It was a position that Azzarello wasn’t unfamiliar with, having faced it at WildStorm on The Authority.
“Steve Dillon and I were taking over The Authority. Our idea was that it was The Authority vs. Jesus Christ, who had a cult in the Middle East. And then 9/11 happened. And we were like ‘We probably shouldn’t publish this story.’ They own the characters. I get it.”
"“You guys know what comics are like these days."
“I think people at DC are saying ‘We can’t do that’ even louder now,” he added. “You guys know what comics are like these days.” Azzarello made a disguted face, like he just swallowed something unpalatable.
Brian Azzarello finding a partner with Lee Bermejo
Working with Lee Bermejo, however, DC “knew what they were getting. It came out of Lex Luthor: Man of Steel (Azzarello and Bermejo’s miniseries which showed us Superman from Luthor’s perspective). That’s when Dan DiDio first started at DC, and when I first met him it was at Chicago Comic Con. We had lunch and at the time Lee and I decided to work together again, because we had worked on Batman/Deathblow. Jim Lee, who was working on WildStorm at the time got a bunch of characters from DC who they weren’t using, and he showed us OMAC. And that’s what we were gonna do. We were going to make it punk rock, really playing with the [character’s] mohawk. Dan said ‘You should be doing something bigger.’ ‘What should we be doing?’ ‘How about Superman?’ ‘We’re not really interested in Superman.’ ‘How about Lex Luthor?’ ‘YES.’ Immediately.”
Azzarello’s approach to Luthor was informed in part not by his opposition to Superman, but his similarities to Batman. “I figured Bruce Wayne has more in common with Lex Luthor than Superman has with Batman. In my opinion, Superman and Batman would not be friends. They’re like Shaq and Kobe. ‘We’re on the same team but we really don’t like each other.’ ‘I’m the leader.’ ‘No, I’m the leader.’”
"In my opinion, Superman and Batman would not be friends. They’re like Shaq and Kobe."
As for Azzarello’s current work, he’s currently wrapping the third volume of his original series Faithless with BOOM! Studios. But Brian seems pretty happy with BOOM!, and will be announcing a new project with them soon – as well as something with comiXology. He definitely sees himself working with Lee Bermejo again. But at least for now, it seems like he’s cleared his plate of big projects at Marvel and DC.
Jim Lee made Brian Azzarello an offer he couldn't refuse
As the moderator opened the floor for questions, we couldn’t help but jump in ourselves. With Azzarello having just expressed his distaste for Superman, how did he happen to work on Superman: For Tomorrow with Jim Lee in 2004? His answer: there are some men you simply can’t say no to. And those men aren’t Kryptonian.
“Jim Lee called me. ‘Any ideas for Superman?’ ‘No.’ ‘You’ll get one.’”
Lee wanted to draw Superman for a year of issues as he had just done with Batman's 'Hush' arc, and he insisted that Azzarello was the man to write it. Azzarello disagreed. But when Jim Lee wants something, he does not take no for an answer.
“So it took me a while. What kind of Superman story can I tell that hasn’t been told before? It’s the reason I went the way I did with Wonder Woman. The George Perez stories are already there. I needed to do something new. I don’t like looking backwards. So what can Superman do? What’s his Achilles heel? And it’s that he’s perfect, that’s his Achilles Heel.”
“And can you really turn down Jim Lee when he’s begging you?” the moderator asks.
"[Jim Lee is] a shark. Last time I saw him was at the track. He loves to gamble."
“There was no begging,” Azzarello corrects. “He told me that’s what I’m doing, so I had to do it.”
One attendee, knowing current DC publisher Jim Lee’s love of poker, then asked if he’s ever played with Azzarello. He has, and says Lee is very good.
“He’s a shark. Last time I saw him was at the track. He loves to gamble.”
The secret origin of DC's Black Label imprint
The next attendee asked Azzarello if there was a difference in the culture between DC and DC’s mature Black Label imprint, which Azzarello has now written two books for – Batman: Damned, and Suicide Squad: Get Joker!
"Black Label was originally called the Jokerverse. So that was kind of in the works already, R-rated take on the superheroes."
“I think originally it was pretty different,” he said. “I’m no so sure it is anymore. I think it’s more Gray Label. Originally, it was Diane [Nelson, former president of DC Entertainment]. Black Label originated out of Joker [Azzarello’s 2008 graphic novel with Lee Bermejo]. It was a huge success. They had no idea it was going to sell the way it sold. But they had nothing to back up Joker with. ‘What else do we have that’s like this?’ So it was Will Dennis and Mark Doyle, who were editors at Vertigo. If I were working on a DC character they would let me take Will as an editor. So why don’t we have more things like this? Kind of alternative takes, but not really. It’s like the Riddler in our story. Why does The Riddler have a cane? Because he needs a cane, one of his legs is shorter than the other. Black Label was originally called the Jokerverse. So that was kind of in the works already, R-rated take on the superheroes. And then the Watchmen movie came out, and it did terribly. So it was like on Friday it was a go, and Monday it was dead. And then it got resurrected by Diane and Jim. And then Diane left, and… you know what happened,” Azzarello says, referring obliquely to everything that’s happened at DC since Warner Bros. was bought and sold by AT&T.
Clearly, in Azzarello’s opinion, Black Label would be a much different animal had Nelson stayed on. “I don’t think [Damned] would have caused the controversy it did if Diane was still there. “She was really into pushing the envelope on things, and she was very pro-creator.”
Brian Azzarello's perspective on modern superhero comics
As for DC’s current approach to creativity… Azzarello isn’t a fan.
“Put 'Crisis' in everything, it sells better!” he says, mocking the simple solution to sales. “You know what? Put Batman’s dick in everything, THAT sells great.”
But maybe not all of what DC has to offer is so dire. Of his most recent Black Label series, Suicide Squad: Get Joker, Azzarello only had positive experiences to share.
“I had a surprisingly good time working on Get Joker. I like Red Hood now! I used to think he was just this angry guy, and I think I could do more with him. He was dead, and now he’s alive. And that could really mess up your perspective on the world. And this is in the story, he was most important when he was dead, and now he’s just one of these guys with guns, so what are you?”
"I do remember being shocked. Like, oh my god, people are awful. So many people voted for a boy to be killed!"At this point, the moderator revealed that back in 1988 during the infamous ‘Death in the Family’ poll, he had voted for Jason Todd to live.
“I didn’t vote,” Azzarello says. “I do remember being shocked. Like, oh my god, people are awful. So many people voted for a boy to be killed!”
Another audience member asked Azzarello what it was like to be the only American in a Vertigo stable full of British writers.
“It was lonely,” he confesses. But “It was good for a while. The only reaction I had was at a bar after a con, and Mark Millar was there and was like ‘Grant [Morrison] and I had been talking, and you’re an honorary Brit. We accept you.’ And I got pissed. I’m like ‘No. I’m American, damn it. I’m not an honorary Brit, I don’t even write like you guys. I come from a different perspective.’ I mean I’m friends with all of them, I hang with them at shows, if the old Vertigo crowd’s there, that’s who I’m hanging around with. I do think 100 Bullets did knock down a lot of walls. Like ‘We can put out a series that’s based in reality.’ We can do crime stuff. This is a genre we’ve opened ourselves up to.”
Another passholder asked if there were any stories in 100 Bullets he got pushback on, or wasn’t allowed to do.
“There was never any editorial pushback on 100 Bullets,” he said. “We got some with Hellblazer, but not on 100 Bullets.”
Brian Azzarello's secret love for the Fantastic Four
The next question asker didn’t get Azzarello to reveal which character he really liked that he’s worked on before, but he did get him to say which ones he’d really like to do in the future.
"I’d like to do Fantastic Four. I think the relationship that Doctor Doom and Reed Richards has is so complex. There’s a great story there."
“Fantastic Four,” he says. “I’d like to do Fantastic Four. I think the relationship that Doctor Doom and Reed Richards has is so complex. There’s a great story there. I’ve never done anything with the family dynamic other than what I created for Wonder Woman. I love Johnny Storm, I love Sue Storm- but what an awful, awful idea, ‘The Invisible Woman.’ What are you doing, Stan?”
The moderator pointed out that, since the original stories, Sue’s powers and capacity as Invisible Woman have made her the most capable member of the team.
“Actually, the Thing is the least powerful,” Azzarello adds. “All he can do it break shit, throw shit.” Which led him to some thoughts on his time working on Banner, his 2001 limited series with Richard Corben.
“The inspiration for Banner was in the grocery store, there was a kid in a cart having the biggest meltdown, and I Was like ‘Oh my god, that kid’s hulking out.’ And that was exactly what was happening.”
Where else does Azzarello get his inspiration? The newspaper. “The Metro section of a newspaper is full of endings. How did they get there?”
Brian Azzarello's perspective on modern comics
Before Azzarello left the stage, we had one more question for him. Our conversation with the author made it clear that he believed censorship in comics has been getting worse. And yet, according to reports from sources like Comichron, the comic book industry is growing more than ever over the past several years. So, as Azzarello sees it, are comics on the rise, or are they on the decline?
"I don’t think the stories with these company-owned characters that are happening are good for story. But that’s because there’s a lot of top down management going on right now because of film."
“I think company-owned characters are in a decline right now,” he replies. “I don’t think the stories with these company-owned characters that are happening are good for story. But that’s because there’s a lot of top down management going on right now because of film. Remember when they put pants on Wonder Woman and people freaked out? It wasn’t that long ago. [It was 2010.] But also with independent stuff, it’s getting a lot better. That might be because creators that might normally be at Marvel or DC are getting frustrated working there. DC you can’t show guns on the cover anymore. Todd [McFarlane] put a Grifter toy out, and it comes with a knife. What is Grifter but that mask and two guns? I mean guns are reality, especially in these comics. Except Batman. And gun violence is at the core of that character. It’s why he won’t use guns!”
As the panel concluded, the attendees all discussed their favorite Azzarello stories. Some said 100 Bullets, some said Batman: Damned. As for me – it’s that Azzarello Hellblazer run. The entire series is about a lost John Constantine in areas strange and unfamiliar to him… like a man out of his own country, but who never loses sight of himself, rough edges and all. We can think of somebody else like that.
Keep track of all of Popverse's stories from the convention with our Florida Supercon round-up.